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Strangers in the City of the Unicorns (Thunderbuck, SteelEagle)

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It wasn't that he was seasick, of that the journalist was sure.  True, he'd never been on a real ocean voyage before.  Also, he'd not been able to keep solid food down in his restless stomach all throughout his journey.  And several witnesses could be produced who could swear to his regretting being born.  

 

No, it was not seasickness.  It was excitement!  For the first time in his career, Earth Writer had gotten an official overseas posting!  For the forseeable future, the tan unicorn was going to be the Canterlot Chronicles' foreign correspondent in Kastrot, the unicorn city in the land of Maretonia, where the pony tribes still lived separate lives...

 

The prospect of working in such an exotic locale was exciting enough, but that wasn't the whole of it, by Celestia's mane!  This was also an adventure to right an ancient injustice!  Traveling with him was Feather Touch, a young aromatherapist from Canterlot.  Having tried out his establishment (and given it a glowing review in the evening edition) Earth had enquired after the strange pendant he'd seen the pegasus wearing.  A little research indicated that the family heirloom was, in fact, originally in the holding of a Kastrotian noble house, until it was stolen centuries ago!  Upon discovering this, both the stallions had agreed to come and try to return it to its rightful owner.

 

That would require interviewing the nobility of the place, who made the Canterlot aristocracy look like a rowdy democracy.  But the reporter had a contact among them, which was the third, and by far the most turbulent source of his excitement.

 

*Heart Stopper...*  The mare had certainly lived up to her name when she represented her home city in the Friendship Expo.  Earth Writer wasn't quite sure that he agreed with the bulk of her politics, but he was convinced that Kastrot as a whole probably deserved a more sympathetic study than previous Equestrian visitors had given it so far.  Hence, his request for this post in particular.

 

"I doubt she'll be waiting for us on the docks."  The journalist remarked to his traveling companion once they were both on deck, waiting for the ship to dock fully.  "I sent a letter ahead of us, of course, but she's undoubtedly quite busy.  I mean, the nobles here actually do stuff, actual government work.  We'll probably have to wait to be put on some kind of schedule."

 

In truth, Earth didn't have the slightest clue what he was talking about, which he would have been the first to admit under questioning.  He was just talking to keep from, well, letting his breakfast revolt.  Which might have also been why warning Feather Touch about the likely reception the unicorns would give him slipped the reporter's mind also...

Edited by Rackenhammer
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Feather Touch nodded softly. His long elegant wings setting gently upon his back. The usualy cheerful air was replaced with a more respectful one. He still smiled, but his laughter was subdued in favor of not interupting anypony's day.

The voyage had been a little kinder to him. He had not been ill, but more so he was also eating less than usual. The revelation that his family heirloom was a stolen gem from a family of the old country... he couldnt stomach that thought. He had to make it right.

And so standing on the deck, saddlebags on bsck he waited. "I understand. There are many things she must likely attend to before she even considers a pair of foreiners. I hope she finds the gift I brought appealing." the gift he mentioned was a pair of candels that when lit produced two different scents. One of the sweet flowers of an Equestrian field. The other the smell of rain on the grass. When lit together they were meant to help the pony using them relax and feel at peace. He had also brought several soaps ans insence just in case. They eere the finest he had ever crafted. And he hoped they would help apologize for the wrong his family had done.

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As it was, Heart Stopper was at the docks. After all, when you personally invite a foreign reporter so you could keep the narrative friendly enough for your noble blood you had to make sure to give some element of friendship in return. Granted, she wished it had been a pony a little younger, fresh out of higher education or an elder pony who didn't have attentions given to him. But she wasn't going to hold it against him, just like she wouldn't hold his Equestrian sensibilities against him. Silly notions like equality and harmony- Equestrians were a delight at parties. Better than clowns or hired entertainers, they could tell you everything about friendship and nothing about the world outside their borders. Which made the irony of why she was a little late a little more than hysterical.

 

She only had to help out on Flamme Island once a month but it was always the worst. She got fewer concubines and played fewer hearts than any other day, even though once or twice she did get a tasty treat. The good thing about the new immigrants was that if they were caught this early she could whisk them away to Heart Island and nopony would even know! The best concubines were those she could shape. Promises of a better life were useful in getting them to then agree to her arranged relationships, increasing the power of her family. Of course with such ambitions today would generally be great had it not been for the severe lack of interesting ponies. So instead of being a lover she was a tax collector! Uggh. What a waste of a beautiful day. The baths at her castle were sure to be brimming with such beautiful specimens of Maretonian delight. The delegation from Acroneighos was in town and she was dying to see what they looked like unarmored and unguarded.

A few unicorns were given the proposal. Some accepted, some did not. Not tha it mattered- she had her eyes set on them and would get them someday, somehow. And then she'd make them rue the day they turned her down. Better was the deals she got on some pegasi and earth ponies. Beyond that she just collected taxes. Gave most of it as she needed to to the Flammes, but she got away with three hundred and eighty kastris. Not that she needed them, but it was always wonderful. After she was done at Flamme Island she traveled to her home, Heart island. She changed into something better and washed up, then walked down to the docks with her two guards.

And there he was. She would make sure to put on a good face today, and why not? Heart Island was obviously beautiful. And who did he have with him? A flying rat. How Equestrian of him. She approached with a smile, waving away the approaching tax collector. She was dressed in a flowing purple dress which was made to fit her- and to entice others.

“Earth Writer! I am so happy you could make it. I am sure your trip here was simply delightful, yes?” She asked, invading his personal space with a whisper at the end, nodding her two guards off.

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It made sense that Feather Touch was calmer than Earth Writer; the pegasus made a living out of methods of calming ponies.  If it weren't for the freight expenses, the reporter would have requested a few candles for himself to ease his internal strain.  Not that he'd thought that he would need it back when they were packing, but oh well.  It would be over soon, anyway.

 

"Just remember, we don't necessarily know yet that it was originally from Lady Heart Stopper's family."  The unicorn reminded his companion as they readied to disembark.  "I just wrote to her because she is literally the only pony I'm acquainted with in this whole city."  With great effort, the journalist was able to keep from prancing in place as the boarding ramp was put into position.  Instead, he was turning his head every which way, trying to get in a good view of the island, the docking facilities, the and the Maretonian ponies themselves all at once.

 

Kastrot, being a city of many islands, was variegated in terms of building style and ornaments.  Each noble family had left their mark upon their territory, shaping it to the particular ideals of their family... or had they taken their ideals from the style they were born into?  That was an interesting question, though Earth doubted it could be easily answered.

 

Heart Island's architecture was of stone, like Canterlot.  Unicorns in general seemed to favor the material, at least when they wanted to build impressively.  The marble used for the more monumental buildings was chosen as much for color as for strength, producing an effect simultaneously of softness and solidity, that led up in a spectrum to the high castle of the ruling family, resplendently visible from the docks.  *I wish I had thought to bring a photographer, or at least a good sketch artist.*  As it was, it would take more than his usual verbal felicity to do the scene justice.

 

The Docks themselves were almost a symbol of universal equine brotherhood, at least at first sight.  You still had the busy swarms of loaders and unloaders, the shouting foremares and stallions, the air of commerce and prosperity common to all ports of call.  Only... the bosses were all unicorns, and the laborers all earth ponies and pegasi.  You would only notice it if you were looking, but once an Equestrian saw the difference, he couldn't unsee it.

 

The contrast, however, did not long linger in Earth Writer's mind, for he was about to receive a pleasant surprise!  There, waiting for him as he stepped off the ship, was none other than Heart Stopper!  Beaming with pleasure, he took of his hat to the lady, but soon found himself unable to bow in greeting, lest they bump heads.  "Oh, I was literally bouncing with anticipation, as my friend here will tell you."  He laughed, eschewing formality in the manner of his fellow-countryponies.  "I honestly hadn't expected to see you so soon; you didn't disrupt your whole schedule just to greet one reporter, did you?"

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Feather Touch stepped down. His sofy lavender coat a gentle pastel color. The length and width of his feathers accenting it in slightly varying shades.

As he saw Heart Stopper he thpught her very beautiful. But no more beautiful than any other pony he had seen in his many days. However he daned to bow to her politely. "Lady Heart Stopper, a pleadure to meet you." He whispered softly.

He had tried to make himself presentable. Wearing a light overcoat that was clean and pressed before the voyage. And left folded to keeo the crease. He had combed his mane and tail thoroughly.

He had made every attempt possible. Including some decorative jewelry a customer had given him as payment. Adorning his fragile wing joints were soft slip on bangles made of roughly carved quartz and some semi-precious metal.

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Heart Stopper smiled. She was good at that. Winning hearts and minds was her business after all, after you went over her actual business of relationships. Well, she loved her work. Sometimes she liked making ponies happy. Other times, well, other times nothing was sweeter than divorcing and taking the husband as a pet for the harem. And letting the wife know about it, to boot. Or marrying two ponies who didn't know one another, or forcing the issue between two who hated one another. So much of a pony's life was wrapped up in who they were with. Why not be the center of their universe every single moment of their lives as a result? That was the beauty of her work. She loved her work. And she loved making others think she loved just as they did. It was almost too easy.

“Why, of course I have. I had your arrival marked on my calendar for some time, my little Equestrian. No matter though. If there was anything truly prescient that required my presence, I would have done my job. Such a tragedy on the rare occasions when I am not so greatly needed, however. Soon though- well, this place always had trouble, thanks to some unruly types from other islands. But pish posh, not here to bore you with such details. I'm here to escort you to a better time in the finest city of the world, dear,” She offered pleasantly, wrapping a leg around him. She was wearing a perfume with a slight vanilla aroma. It was a natural aphrodisiac, after all.

But he was not alone. There was a rather nice looking pegasus along for the ride, with a not terrible sense of style. This wasn't what she had wanted, but oh well. More butter for the bread. At least this one was polite. Not at all like those ruffians from Acroneighos. “Such a polite one you are. No reason to bow right now, we're at the docks! It's a dirty place,” she laughed, not wanting to add that it would hardly matter if she got dirty. She was flying rat anyway. Back to the speaking. As for official title, Lady may pass. I prefer Mistress, however,” she said, winking at earth Writer. “Come!” She stated trotting down the doc, her guards keeping a wide berth.

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If winning hearts and minds was Heart Stopper's job... well, all Earth Writer would be able to say was that she was very good at it!  As for the stallion himself, his own duty was to sniff out the truth.  He thought he wasn't too shabby at it, though unlike the Maretonian, he had not been trained since birth in it.  This was to become apparent as he tried to follow up on the offhoof remark she tossed out in greeting.

"Troubles, hm?  I should hate to think that I came at a bad time, but for a journalist- oh!"  The unicorn started a bit at feeling Heart Stopper wrap a leg around him.  As friendly as Equestria was, on the whole, most ponies waited until they knew each other a little better before actually touching so much.  Or maybe that was just Canterlot?  The city was uptight, on the whole, and even the Bohemian quarters could not escape that influence.  It may well be that Kastrot mares, and Maretonia as a whole, had different mores about this sort of thing.

*Well, when in Roam, do as the Roamans do.  Suppose that applies just as well here.*  Thus was his first mental compromise made.  It would not be the first or last time an Equestrian had do so, with his head full of the scent of vanilla...  

 

Earth decided to test his hypothesis about Maretonian mare manners by wrapping his own leg around Heart Stopper in turn.  Back in his home city, to do this to a noblemare, on so little an aquiantance, could mean social ruin.  There was a thrill of daring in his heart as he did so, which surged up through his sense of humor, animating the stallion's features in a wink towards his pegasus companion.

"Mistress, she says.  Careful Feather, this is the sort of mare your ma warned you about!"  Laughing, he allowed himself to be led away from the docks.

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"My mother never warned me about any mares. Just to stay away from this land. I never knew why and neither did she." He said softly. The stallion walked slowly with them. Quietly taking in the scenery.

His eyes roved the area. He saw a lot of ponies under stress. And that made him unsettled. He wanted to help them. Butbhe had other matters to attend to first and foremost.

As they passed away from the docks, Feather Touch's nose began working over time. And it showed. He was able to disearn every scent around him and take them in turn. As was his custom, he began to whisper the names of each scent under his breath. Barely audible. Soon enough he was able to stop. "May i venture a question Mistress Heart Stopper?" He asked softly.

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 Heart Stopper reveled In the warmth of another pony in almost any form she could take it. Kastrot could be a cold city in more than the chosen demeanor of it's inhabitants. When the fog rolls in nicely, blanking the lower quarters of the city in icy mist and the bleakness of the extended moors of the city, nothing was better than living in the higher quarters of the city with those you had chosen that day. Warm drinks with warm ponies, all in the most luxurious manner possible. She allowed earth Writer into this world with her embrace, one he sheepishly and impishly returned. That was just as well. She didn't want anypony getting too comfortable with her presence, after all, even one she had invited. It didn't do well when somepony expected more out of her than she wanted them to, after all. Unless that was the goal.

“Trouble for a journalist is like nectar to a dying mare, is it not? Sweet, nourishing, oh so delightful- no, this is just another case of my family getting pushed around by those who are envious of our position and history. I am sure you have similar incidents in Equestria,” Heart Stopper added open-endedly as they trotted along. The city streets were wonderfully well-kept, and through such great use of labor too! Just get a few ponies in debt to devote their free time to cleaning up the streets as a way of paying off debt. That or ship then off to the mines, either way benefited it Kastrot. And more importantly, it benefited her family. The streets were clear for business, the heavy bustle down narrow avenues of commerce. It lacked the width of Equestrian cities. But that was really on account of the size of population and space they had.

Not that Heart Stopper had to be concerned by this. Her two guards fanned out in front of her and created a path that the three could walk in safe and sound. “Feel free to ask me a question, if you so wish. Before that though- what brings you to my city, if you were told to stay away?” Heart Stopper asked of the silly pegasus.

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Why was there no parallel word to "warmth" to describe the tactile quality of colder temperatures?  It would have been very useful to Earth Writer then, as he was trying to formulate phrases that would capture the atmosphere of the city as it hit him.  True, the sun was currently out, with relatively few clouds, but nevertheless, there was in the Maretonian air something that was not like the autumn chills of Equestria.  Perhaps that was one reason why the streets were so crowded; the heated deals and debates of the street were the warmth of the common pony, fighting the chill of Kastrot in close solidarity...

 

Quite close solidarity, if one was lucky.  Heart Stopper was apparently offering no objections to them proceeding together locked in an embrace, nor being seen in public doing so, which was the real kicker for the reporter.  No Canterlotian noble, even the less snobby ones, would be so welcoming to one not of their class.  *Certainly something to be said for our cousins across the sea...*  If Earth entertained the notion that he was being played like a fiddle, he didn't show it.  His hostess's tactic, then, was super-effective in producing a positive impression of her culture.

 

Thus, he was inclined to listen carefully, and pay somewhat more than half his attention to her, rather than to the street the guards were clearing in front of him.  With head tilted to one side, the picture of the perfect ponderer, he absorbed her version of the social troubles, though the last note of it rang a little false with him.  "Well... no, actually, now that I think about it.  There's very little overt class tension, even in a city like Canterlot.  Heh, if we were having those sorts of troubles, I wouldn't have had to cross the sea to get real stories now, would I?"

 

The unicorn peeked over to his companion as the mare turned to address Feather Touch.  Earth had to admit, he too was curious, though more about what the pegasus had to ask than why he had come.  The journalist already knew why Feather Touch had felt it important to come; even commoners had family honor, and he wished to restore his by returning what had been taken long ago.

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"Until recently... i was never sure myself. It made no sense because she did not know herself. But now i know..." he looked at her. "I am decended an honest pony, from a family of thieves... and that offends my conscience greatly. I will wash this stain from my hooves."

He seemed upset with himself for the affair. Something aweful had happened. "We should be in more private settings to discuss it further. But suffice to say... it disturbs me as to what my friend here found..."

The pegasus shifted his wings lightly. Unsettled by thinking about it. He was an unwilling accomplice in a centuries old crime. One he would see corrected.

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The pegasus was a real downer. Heart Stopper knew of those types. They existed in great abundance in Maretonia, where families cast long and piercing shadows, terrible fates bestowed upon a newborn foal for nothing more than mere existence. In order to make life better for the next generation, they atoned through deed and, usually, work. It didn't work for many, but Heart Stopper loved those who tried. There was nopony more willing to debase themselves and prostate their very sense of being than somepony who felt laden with self-worth issues because of family. She wasn't a cruel tyrant of love however- many, many, many foals that ran around the streets playing with other street urchins were the products of relationships she had arranged. Many of those relationships were the rewards of a decade or more of service to Heart Stopper, and more than a few of those were in turn the products of desperate ponies trying to get some semblance of familial honor back.

The thought almost- almost- made her giggle. Such a silly notion. So many of them were flying rats or dirt farmers, doomed to dishonor and lacking in all facets of familial prestige by their very species. They could be the progentor of the most noble family of earth and pegasi to have ever existed and they'd stand tall enough to eat at the dog's bowl in the house of Kastrotian Familial Honor. This was why the Acroneighians had to resort to violence. They lacked any real worthwhile family bond, any real sense of being more than flying weather, so they had to look to weaponry. The Earth Ponies of Hippostion had to turn to a meritocratic system of crime and lawlessness in order to prove who is the best. No honor, no respect, the minds of foals at play.

Thank Urbana she was a unicorn. She'd have wandered off into the sea otherwise.
“I see why you brought this one along. Must be such a delight at parties,” Heart Stopper sardonically spoke after a delay, nudging her journalist. “I assume you know him well enough to trust that old family ways won't come back? We have a very strict policy regarding thieves,” she shot with mock seriousness, a wink back to the pegasus. Her frivolity on the matter disguised the truth: Thieves had learned to avoid such activity on Heart Island. There were fates far worse than banishment, encasement in stone, or death.

But back on more important matters, such as making her journalist feel comfortable. Of course Canterlot was too boring and peaceful for his taste. How couldn't it be? For all of his Equestrian mannerisms, there was a little Maretronian in the boy, as it was the original homeland of all ponies (don't let Celestia fool you, fillies). “Oh? Then I count myself even luckier to have you here. Maybe a set of Equestrian eyes so accustomed to peace amongst nobility can be so kind as to spot the problem,” she whispered as the guards continued. After a while they parted the sea, and they started to make good progress to her desired part of town.

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"Oh?  Oh yes, I can vouch for him."  Earth Writer could detect the "mock" note in the seriousness of Heart Stopper's tone, but he was quick to speak up in full sincerity.  The reporter knew as well as anypony that idle words could be serious indeed, especially when printed in bold type on the front pages.  "His neighbors would too, if they were here.  He's a square dealer.  Good at what he does, too, which is aromatherapy and massage.  Worth every bit, if you'll take my judgment."  He shot a reassuring look at his winged companion to go with the mare's wink.  The poor pegasus was unused to travel, and probably also to dealing with ponies like Heart Stopper.  Today was a clash of cultures, and no mistake...

 

There was a concept in Equestrian Society, or at least in Equestrian Sociology, known as social mobility.  Earth Writer had an admittedly vague notion of what it was; in his head the idea of a pony moving freely from place to place was associated with their being able to move from one social position to another.  And in practice, there was a high correlation between the two; Feather Touch was a good example.  His family had been thieves and vagabonds as long as they stayed in Maretonia, but moving to Equestria had allowed the pegasus to become a respectable shopkeeper.

 

The journalist was willing to bet that few things like that happened in Kastrot.  Most ponies were born, lived, and died on the same island in the same city, more or less living out the roles they had been born into.  Of course, the economic prosperity of the city would attract other ponies to come to it in order to seek a better life, and that introduction of social migrants might have a disturbing effect on this status quo...

 

At any rate, that was the first thing that came to mind when Heart Stopper said to him,  "Maybe a set of Equestrian eyes so accustomed to peace amongst nobility can be so kind as to spot the problem.”

 

Thus, he began in the time-honored way of his profession, with a question,  "Perhaps.  I've noticed that there seems to be a lot of commerce and activity in this city, even in the afternoon hours which are usually a lull in my own hometown."  He nodded at both the crowds, now dwindling before the flying wedge of guards in front of them, as well as the increasingly prosperous look of the buildings around the group.  "I suppose you've got a lot of ponies moving in from the country?"

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Feather Touch only half paid attention. He was more taking in the sites. And his own eyes were not looking at prosperity. he was known tonspot distress easily. And he saw some in the pegasi and earth ponies. But he kept quiet.

His eyes were slowing roving the crowd. He spotted a few glances stolen at them. Some envious. Other wonder. Somw still confusion as to why foreign ponies were with a ruling mare.

Feather Touch was accustomed to pretty mares. and so Heart Stopper's looks and charms had little sway over him. He paused a moment to look at a flower shop.

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Blah blah blah straight shooter. Blah blah blah square dealer. Blah blah blah nothing. Familial dishonor was dishonor a single generation couldn't overturn no matter the intent. Born into a family of thieves, you die in a family of thieves. Maybe the next generation could live well enough to erase the sins of the past, but it took a while. Equestria could go ahead and forgive things easily, but lovely Kastrot didn't allow things to slide so easily. That was why they were as glorious as their honored ancestors and Equestrians were doomed to a cycle of boom and bust. Pah. No matter. The important thing was that that this 'straight shooter' was going to be kept on a tight leash by his better, his rightfully more eloquent Equestrian companion. If not, there were better uses for his type than stinking up one of her estates.

“If you say so, I am sure it is correct. I wouldn't expect any trouble from either one of you while you're here anyway. No doubt the rumors of Kastroti punishments have been exaggerated by those unhappy with them, but they are still likely more strict than what you as an Equestrian are used to,": she said absentmindedly as she considered his question, “and yes, of course they come here. Outside of our walls, Maretonia is a series of mud huts, flying outhouses, and disorganized rubes huddling together in the cold and snow of our land. We offer warmth and safety, and even a good living if you're willing to work. Seems like good quid pro quo if you ask me. Some like it...hot, after all,” she replied, smiling with satisfaction at the truth in her words.

The guards stopped in front of a building. It was a three story structure, with all three stories sharing the same square structure, each one smaller than the last. It had elaborate banners and signs on it, with the Heart family's symbol on many of the banners. “This is one of my many estates, and where you two will be housed when I'm not otherwise whisking you away. Do you two want to get settled?”

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Earth Writer was not what anypony would call a rural sort.  In character, preferences, and even certain prejudices, he was a thoroughly urbanized stallion.  But for all that, he had been raised in a small town, and had seen for himself what a healthy countryside looked like.  That is to say, nothing like how Heart Stopper had described Maretonia.

 

Whatever foreigners might say of the boom and bust cycles in Equestrian cities, the fertile fields and forests of the country acted as their flywheel, balancing social and economic excesses to keep the nation as a whole level.  And it had to be said that there were as many instances of ponies going to the country because they were tired of the city as there were of the urban-bound migrants.  To hear that such things were out of balance was... troubling.  

 

Unless, of course, Heart Stopper was exaggerating.  Many city nobles would disparage the countryside as a sort of class convention.  Thus, the stallion only commented, "Seems a pity to leave it under-developed like that.  Gotta get your food from somewhere, after all; I'd call it a wise investment."  If the size of the palace to which they were going was any indication, the elites of this place were certainly not starved for capital!

 

Still, keeping the conversation on a light keel was Earth's intention.  After all, their hostess was giving them such a warm welcome, no need to spoil it now.  The tough business could wait until later... *Much later.*  He thought, as another inhalation filled his lungs with the scent of vanilla.  "Of course, our aim is to soothe and solve troubles, if possible.  Sort of a... civilian peace delegation, if you will."  He laughed a little at that, looking over to Feather Touch, who seemed to be looking at the flowers.  Made sense; there were probably a few scents native to the place that he could make use of.

 

 

Once they finally arrived at the monumental estate building, Earth Writer whistled.  "Well, that's... certainly something you wouldn't see back home, eh Feather?"  He did not remark that it looked more like a tomb than actual house.  There was nothing really.... home-like about it.  Even the most opulent dwellings in Equestria still looked like houses in which one could be comfortable, in a normal way of comfort.

 

He considered the prospect of settling down in it for the duration of his stay.  It would certainly be something to write home about, which is, after all, what the reporter came for in the first place.  "I don't see why not; I didn't pack too much, so it shouldn't take too long.  And I'm curious to see what the interior looks like."

Edited by Rackenhammer

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Feather touch looked up at it. "Its solid and has a roof. Thats all we need. The rest we can do with out hooves if needed." The words of a pony ised to looking after himself. "Besides. A little perfume goes a long way doesnt it, my lady?"

For the first time he smiled. The whole trip he went without smiling. And now he smiled. Producing from his bag a small purple candle. "Lavender, lilac, jasmine, and fresh rain. For you. Give it a try one day. You may find it to your liking. As well... i may have a line of products on the market soon. I would love to have a client or two in Maretonia that finds my aromatherapy products appealing." And with that he trotted right inside.

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Maybe this stallion wasn't quite so bad. Instead of having him working the mines or selling him off, if he committed a misdeed, perhaps she could instead simply have him chained. She needed a new pet after all, and he seemed like the sort who could give a mare the sort of attention she needed. “Oooh, good nose there, Feather. My my, we'll make a Kastrotian out of you yet, little one,” she laughed, turning to the journalist. A good reason as any to doubt her words, but offbase. “We'll invest in their patches of mudhuts they call towns when they stop getting mercenaries and criminals to break into our town and steal what is most valuable to us,” she sighed and shook her head, “onto better things. Most pointedly, your home for now.”

The doors opened and immediately the cold of the outside world was met and defeated by the ambient warmth that flooded them. Fires were stoked near every torch, the fire within flooding out and cupped by the torches whenever they dimmed. Torches lined the wall, providing all of the soft, sensual light that seemingly hugged the curves of the mares and accentuated the features of the stallions. The fonest fabrics in long ropey sheets lined the walls as well, and carpets welcomed hooves. The main hall stretched out into an open air entrance into the entire first floor, which consisted of indoor hot springs, a feasting room, and a lounge. Across the first floor could be heard the sounds of laughter, giggling, and debauchery from every corner. Two staircases spiraled up- but for now, this'll do.

Two unicorn mares approached, each one with a bright white coat and a black and red cloak that seemed to shimmer and dance on them. They bowed.
“M'lady, are these your Most Honored Guests?”
“Quite so. If you could, please prepare their rooms. It has been rather cool out there and I'd like them warmed up for me,” she replied. To this, the mares bowed and left. Heart Stopper walked and talked.
“The main floor has the baths-” she pointed, and indeed the hot springs were there with a full compliment of ponies having a ball, “the main dining facility-” also true, as could be evidenced by ponies eating and feeding each other grapes, among other things, “and the lounge,” she pointed to the largest open area with plush furniture and fine decorations, and a small army of attractive ponies attending to the needs of occupants.

“Upstairs will be your rooms, with attached full study and servant quarters. A library, along with the performance hall. Third floor is private- I'll show you later, lovelies.”

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Well, now!  It seemed Feather Touch had chosen his gift well.  A real trooper, that pegasus; willing to go into what probably amounted to enemy territory, sleep in a mausoleum, and even offer a generous gift on top of that!  There was something truly Equestrian in that.  So much so, in fact, that Earth Writer even doubted whether Heart Stopper, with all her charms, could ever make a Kastrotian out of Feather.

 

The reporter, on the other hoof, made for an easier target.  He was normally inclined to point out that if the villages were made less poor, they would be less likely to engage in criminal activity.  As it was, the unicorn only shrugged and said, "That's certainly an impasse," before following the mare into the huge stone building.

 

 

That was when Earth learned that it only resembled an ancient tomb from the outside.  The only phrase he could find to adequately describe the inside was pleasure-palace!  Never before, in fiction or experience, had the journalist ever encountered a place that fit the phrase so exactly.  The contrast between the chill outside and the warmth inside alone would have left an impression of sybaritic sensation, but that was only the beginning!

 

The lighting would have been a delight to any artist (save, perhaps, a photographer), creating and sustaining an atmosphere of the sensuous and exotic.  His eyes feasted upon everything illuminated, from the carpeting, to the furnishings, to the ponies all about them.  Especially their alluring hostess, now in her element.

 

And what rooms!  No "luxury" resort back home would ever quite measure up again.  There was something altogether... uncommercial about it.  None of this had been set up to make a profit, but all had been built and collected for its own sake, for ponies to enjoy.  All this, and with promises of further delights unrevealed... Earth Writer was practically dizzy, certainly lightheaded.  Feather Touch's aromas had combined with Heart Stopper's perfume to create a heady mixture...

 

"Th-thank you!"  He effused, trying to stop a stupid grin from overtaking his face.  "I... honestly, this is the sort of welcome I never thought I'd receive anywhere!"  Reporters were not typically on good terms with elites; this noblemare was certainly skilled in showing why a change to that policy might be in order for him.  

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Feather Touch nodded at everything. He was impressed indeed. This was the quality of things he had heard may be in the Princesses' Palace. And Heart Stopper seemed to have no end to her supply of charming disposition. The stallion smiled. Shifting his stance, his wings opened some. Letting the heat sink into his feathers. as his wings unfurled, they were large. Beyond what any pegasus should have. The feathers were long, cared for. Tended and trussed so that each long feather stood out and made a beautiful pose all it's own. 

 

Where any pony had their point of pride of their appearance, this was his. This was his one spot of vanity. Wings the likes of which made other pegasi turn with envy and burning jealousy. Feeling the warmth returning to his wings, he nodded to himself. Under those wings was a toned, lean body. Lithe and slender. Built for speed, but apparently never used. Closing his wings again, he watched the mares as they moved away. He was unused to this level of privilege. And it showed as he looked at everything she showed them.

 

When mention of a bath was made, he stared a bit longer at that. A bath sounded wonderful. warm water and a chance to properly care for his wings. Smiling as he returned to stand beside Earth Writher, the pegasi gave him a nudge. "Hey... easy there. A lady needs to be approached with respect and measure." Looking to Heart Stopper he bowed. "Thank you, My Lady."  Well, at least he still remembered his manners. 

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They were suitably impressed. Good. She didn't waste a single inch of space here in order to get the proper effect. Even the walls were insulated, small streams of steam from heated rocks down below that warmed the whole building. The walls would crack if not for the specialist materials used in the construction, and it all helped to create a sense of the slightly dangerous, outrageously inviting, and in your face sensual that made this place sch a joy. Not that any of her other pleasure palaces lacked similar or even superior features, but this was closer to the docks and more importantly had space available. And at night, the steam would be replaced by sound-stuffing insulation from a special foam substance, activated with a spell. And then the workers who toiled all day and some of the night in the underground could slouch off to their homes for a few hours of sleep before they were needed again. At least they got paid, the ungrateful ingrates!

The reporter was stunned. He could hardly stammer out the words. His friend was less taken aback, but she could see it in his eyes that he was impressed. That was enough for her. “Somepony here hasn't forgot his proper manners- and such nice wings to boot,” she said pleasantly, not adding that having a nice pair of wings was like having a nice movement. It was better than bad but it mattered little to anypony with taste. “I am glad you two like it. Come, let me show you your rooms,” she said with more than a little excitement. She led them to the second floor, with the library directly across from them and the doors to the performance hall shut securely behind them. She led them down a hallway, many of the doors in which had occupied signs on them. Finally, two rooms separate from one another, directly across. She opened the door.

The bed was large and made with satin sheets, and there was a wall of goodies and drinks that flanked it. One door led to the private bathroom- another, she opened, revealed the more cramped servant's quarters, which had a closet which was shut securely. “Both of you will have two servants, three if requested, and they will be here to serve any need. Your drinks and food stored in your rooms are free of charge and may be replenished at any time. You also have unrestricted access to all first floor and second floor facilities,” she turned around to the reporter, invading his personal space. “Is there anything else you need before you two get settled?”

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If Earth Writer spared any thought at all as to how Heart Stopper produced the stunning effects and warming atmosphere, he probably attributed it to simple, or not-so-simple, magic.  It wasn't an unfair assumption, right?  After all, Kastrot was a unicorn city, possibly the unicorn city.  If there would ever be a place where magic could replace labor, this would be it.  It was rather unfortunate for the lower classes of this great city that the foreigner's judgment was so in error, but this part of the palace was sealed against all unpleasantness, whether in thought or sensation...

 

Really, though, was it all so bad?  Feather Touch had even gotten a compliment out of their hostess, and if she could be so sweet on a pegasus, surely her prejudices could be overcome.  Just increase travel, trade, and communication, and friendship and harmony must follow, right?  

 

Such were the reporter's sincere thoughts as he contentedly followed Heart Stopper up the stairs, appreciating all the views available.  And the rooms!  What a finishing touch to a great resort... By this time, the stallion was far past minding any invasion of his personal space, only smiling at Heart Stopper as she approached.  "Oh... I think everything here is quite satisfactory, wouldn't you say, Feather?"

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"Quite so. I believe a little time to unwind after that journey would help my wing joints. As well it would give me time to take in the wonderful style of this place. I think I may indeed find a way to bring some of this land back home to Canterlot. The scents of Equestria are pleasant. But not exotic like this is." He looked around. smiling as he looked over the rooms. 

 

This was beyond luxury. And the more he saw of this land, the more he wanted to stay here a little longer. Yes he needed to return that jewel. But he also needed to stop being afraid. Heart Stopper had had many chances to have him dealt with. She had not tried. In fact she had been a gracious host and very pleasant. Smiling at her he bowed. "With your permission I would like some time to bathe and perhaps rest before we continue, my lady."

 

Ever polite, he tried to make sure he paid close attention to her customs. She was in charge here. and he knew it. He had to remain in her good graces. 

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Good, good. She was happy that her accommodations had proven to keep her guests at ease. Sure, a few months from now they may or may not be so absolutely riven with desire that they'd make excellent recruits to her harem. They would be sold off for favors if it pleased her, kept closer if it tickled her more. Just like dozens of others in that regard, if that path was trodden upon. But until that was chosen, they were guests. Sure, guests she would manipulate and play with, but there were infinitely worse fates than being a toy for Heart Stopper. Heck, many would beg to get into that position. And part of that was her trying to see just how much luxury and sensuality a pony could stand before they became twitching, pulsing centers of desire and creativity. That was the point where she liked to do her own most glorious work.

 

And, well, a bath was just fine for that. Heart Stopper nodded. “Oh, most correct. A nice bath can soothe the body, prepare the mind, and allow a pony to take stock of things. We have prepared the most luxurious bathing establishment in the district for you two. Come with me to the first floor, get all prepped and ready for the most luxurious bath you'll ever have. Well, until tomorrow that is. And the day after, etcetra,” she rolled her hooves to emphasize that as they walked down to the first floor. The sound of laughter, giggling, and all sounds in between echoed around. A group of dancers had made their way down and toook up the main foyer, playing to the rhythm of the building as directly and intimately as possible. They were distracting, but Heart Stopper moved the group into the public baths they had seen before.

It was divided into eight areas, marked by different colored illuminating lights that separated them from below. Each one had a different temperature, but what didn't change was the attendants. Gaggles of athletic mares and stallions swam around with lotions, shampoos, conditioners, oils, and masking cream. The guests found themselves resting on their shoulders against the plush sides of the bathing area, being fed grapes by other attendants. They were moved around as needed by the attendants and were all thoroughly massaged, washed, and cleaned, without the need to lifet a single hoof themselves. It was luxury- luxury defined.

“Well, go on now. Don't be shy!” Heart Stopper teased, pointing to two open areas on opposite ends.

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Contrary to most political theorists, an egalitarian can actually integrate very well into an aristocracy... provided that they treated like the aristocrats.  Earth Writer was far too overwhelmed, of course, to submit his feelings to any kind of intellectual analysis, let alone make any future plans based off of them.  Left to himself, he may very well have stood paralyzed for some time, stunned by the choice of luxuries at his disposal, not to mention the mare offering them!

 

Fortunately, Feather Touch had kept his head better, or at least had a better grasp of his own desires, giving the reporter a lead to follow.  "Good idea; I need to get all this salt out of my mane and coat, and those baths sure looked lovely."  While the idea of a luxurious bath, rather than one that simply cleaned, was not wholly alien to the unicorn, he was by no means so rich as for it to be a common experience.  Communal bathing, on the other hand, was almost a complete novelty.  Maretonian baths had not spread to Equestria.  Certainly not to Canterlot, where a sense of reticence and dignity almost trumped luxury in the atmosphere.

 

And that was what was so intoxicating to the reporter about Kastrot; the luxury was unrestrained and unashamed.  One could sink into a pool of sensual pleasure as naturally as into water.  "Boy, I wish I could see the looks of some of the stuffed shirts we've got back home at all this!"  Earth remarked, as he watched the gaggle of dancers pass while they entered the bathing rooms.  "I think they'd almost crack in two."

Not wanting to stand out too much, the Equestrian reporter tamped down his own momentary shyness and tossed his hat, jacket, and notebook on the pile by the door, heading off to one of the two areas indicated by Heart Stopper.  He only paused to wink at his pegasus companion, "Can you imagine setting up a place like this, in the back of your shop?  Might do well."  He said with a laugh, setting off to sink himself into the warm baths and warmer hospitality.

 

*Oh my Celestia, this is living!*  It had taken Earth Writer but a minute to acclimate himself to the waters, in every sense.  It felt nothing short of wonderful to be waited on horn and hoof, to let the day to day world slip off him with the sea salt, replaced with the oils of pleasure.  The atmosphere was full of steam and sweet scents, which somehow managed to accumulate without cloying, perhaps because there were enough bodies to soak up the perfume.  And what a pleasant sight those bodies made!  As a Bohemian, the stallion considered himself a good judge of aesthetics and beauty, and all that he saw pleased him.  His eyes roved, but always found themselves returning, as in a recurring orbit, to searching out glimpses of their hostess...

 

Heart Stopper.  None here outshined her.  

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